incident light

San Antonio Symphony, Lang-Lessing, Filjak

Speaking French like a native

November 10, 2012

The Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France is rather like the Rio Grande -- a natural boundary often breached, a wall punctured by doors.

The San Antonio Symphony’s concert of Nov. 9,  ravishingly performed under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, explored the back-and-forth of musical cultures across the Pyrenees through the French composer Maurice Ravel’s Spanish-inflected orchestral showpieces “Rapsodie espagnole” and “Bolero” and the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s French-influenced “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” with the young Croatian pianist Martina Filjak. Purely French was Claude Debussy’s set of three orchestral Nocturnes, with the Sirens’ beckoning ahhhs nicely vocalized by the women of the Mastersingers chorus.

“Nights in the Gardens of Spain” is an enchanting work that is too seldom performed.  It requires a pianist of considerable ability, but the solo line is less the main course than a brilliant garnish to the gorgeous orchestral score. Major pianists tend to prefer more heroic roles, though the work has had some towering exponents, notably Alicia de Larrocha and Robert Casadesus. Ms. Filjak did a fine job, effectively negotiating both her music’s lyricism and its flamenco-dance percussiveness.

The most remarkable aspect of the concert was Mr. Lang-Lessing’s total mastery of the sound universe of Ravel and Debussy -- the distinctive inner pulse, the eroticism, the layered transparency, the clarity of the textures, achieved through meticulous orchestral balances (and, of course, top-drawer playing from the orchestra). It is almost a law of nature, if not a codicil to the Treaty of Versailles, that only French conductors can get all of it right, but you’d think the German Mr. Lang-Lessing had been to the manière born.

It probably helped that he’d spent much of his early career in France, as music director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique in Nancy. His extensive experience as an opera conductor also doubtless contributed to the dramatic astuteness of these performances, not only in bold coups de théâtre but in the pacing and shaping of whole movements.

Mr. Lang-Lessing has been fully at the helm of this orchestra for less than two years, but his ambitions for its sound are already coming to fruition. In this concert the strings achieved a silken transparency and luxurious surface beyond anything I’ve heard before from this orchestra; in the Falla, the cellos produced a singing line so beautiful it could make you weep. The woodwinds were consistently elegant, the brass only a shade less so.


"Bolero" was the music for a provocative segment of a wonderful 1976 Italian animated feature film, "Allegro non troppo," by Bruno Bozzetto.
Click here to see a clip on YouTube. 
“Bolero” brought forth excellent solo work from all corners of the orchestra and from the center, where acting principal percussionist Riely Francis tirelessly maintained the bolero dance rhythm that holds the whole piece together. Especially agreeable contributions came from principal bassoon Sharon Kuster, principal trombone Amanda Davidson and principal clarinet Ilya Shterenberg.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Tal Perkes, who was noted for his lustrous tone in his 18 years as the orchestra’s principal flute. Sitting immediately to his left during those 18 years was principal oboe Mark Ackerman, who delivered touching reminiscences of his friend and colleague.

Mike Greenberg